If I ever meet James Cameron, I hope I will remember to ask him if it was a coincidence that he chose to the make the aliens blue. His movie, Avatar, garnered 3 Academy Awards for it’s epic tale of humanity’s encounter with the Na’Vi, largely through the creation of avatars, body forms that humans beam their consciousness into so they can mingle and fraternize with the locals.
The concept of the avatar comes originally from Hinduism, and refers to the concept of a God or Supreme Being deliberately descending to earth in a manifest form. One of the most popular gods for doing this is Vishnu, also blue. The concept of avatar in Hinduism is more complicated than this, but the piece of it that pertains to this post is the general concept of the attempt of a supreme being to incarnate part of itself to enter the world. There is an inherent diminution or derivative quality to it.
If you are more familiar with video games than Hinduism, you are probably more familiar with the concept of an avatar meaning the graphical representation of the player’s character in the game. When we play Pac-Man, our avatar manifests in the video game as a little yellow circle with a mouth that races around gobbling dots. Over the decades games and graphics have become capable of more sophisticated avatars ranging from the Viking-like Nords of Skyrim to the soldiers of Call Of Duty. As these video game worlds proliferate, players descend into them with avatars of many shapes, sizes and species. Some games, like Eve Online, allow you to customize the features of your avatar extensively; others allow you to pick from a limited number. We are always diminished by the process of taking on an avatar. Even if the powers an avatar has in the video game world are immense, it is derivative of the complexity of being human.
What is interesting is that most of us use avatars every day online, we just never realize it. Video games are just one form of social media, and avatars abound in all of them. The graphic may be as simple as our picture next to a blog post or comment, or a video on Youtube. But in the 21st century most of us are digital citizens and use one form of avatar or another. Some people in the world will only ever know us through our avatar in a video game or Second Life. And yet we know something of each other.
I think more and more of us are becoming aware of the connection between the avatar and the curated self, the aspects of our psychological self we choose to represent online. The curated self is the part of ourselves we have some ability to shape, by what we disclose, what graphics we choose, and how we respond to others. Like an avatar, the curated self at its best is deliberate. I say at its best, because although the curated self is in our care, we can also be careless with it.
Recently I posted a video of myself on my YouTube channel entitled “Should Therapists & Social Workers Post Videos Of Themselves On YouTube?” In making the video I chose to wear a bike helmet, and by the end of the post was using the bike helmet as an example of the risks we take when we opt to attempt innovation of our curated self. The video was designed to inspire critical discussion and thinking, and it did just that. In some groups where it appeared people described the video and points it was illustrating as “brilliant.” Other groups interpreted it as an instructional video on how to advertise your therapy practice and lambasted it. There was a myriad of responses, and I’m sure even more from people who opted not to comment on it. I received a number of likes of it, and a number of dislikes.
What I think is important and instructional here was how people began to comment through their avatars as if they were addressing the whole person I am rather than an avatar. And they made incorrect assumptions ranging from my age to my motives. The bike helmet and my posture on the video became the target for some incredible nastiness disguised as constructive criticism. From the safety of their own avatars they hurled some invectives at who they thought I was and what they thought I was doing in front of an audience of other avatars who alternately joined in, were silent, emailed me privately to offer words of support, or publicly commented on what they saw. The irony to me was that people began to demonstrate all of the roles we encounter in “cyberbullying,” which was part of what the video also touched on. In a perhaps not surpising parallel process, we got to see and play out the sorts of dynamics that our patients and children experience all the time.
We need to remember that every avatar is a derivative of the person. It is connected enough that we have attachments and responses to it. We can feel proud or ashamed, hurt or healed through our avatars. In fact, research from Nick Yee on “The Proteus Effect” has shown that playing a game with a powerful avatar for 90 seconds can give the player increased self-confidence that persists for up to 6 hours. It stands to reason that if someone experiences their avatar as weak or socially unacceptable for a brief time there may be lasting effects as well. Behind the guy in a bike helmet is someone else. He may be a faculty member at Harvard, a sensitive fellow, a father, a student, a man who just lost his partner, a person with a criminal record, or any, all or none of these. But he is always more than the derivative of his avatar. We need to practice being mindful of this and model it as we train others to be digital citizens. It is counterproductive to sound off on cyberbullying to our children or grandchildren, when they can Google us online and see us doing it ourselves.
We also need to help our patients, their families, and colleagues understand the active role we need to take in curating ourselves online. We need to understand what may happen when we put certain things out there. For therapists this includes the dilemma of putting out a curated self that resembles what kind of work you would do, while not disclosing or conveying more than you want the world to know. The example I always use with students and consultees is how I talk about my family but never who they are in particular. This is deliberate, because it is no big disclosure that I have a family, everyone on the planet has one of sorts with the possible exception of Dolly the cloned sheep. But beyond that I curate a private self, and let folks project what they may. If we put out comments describing patients or coleagues as “screwed up,” we are also curating ourself, I suggest poorly. We need to be mindful that most groups we participate online in are open and searchable. Many of my colleagues became therapists at least in part because they didn’t want to be known and thought the best defense was a good offense (“We’re here to talk about you, not me.”) They’re used to sharing the gallows humor with the team, and think the same applies to online. I’m with Rilke on this one: “for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your life.”
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “our self is everything that is the case,” not just one avatar, blog, string of emails or video; not even the composite of all of them. Nor is our curated self everything that is the case. We’re more than our Facebook likes or our Twitter following. Human beings are so much more, much more wondrous and tragic than the curated self. We descend into the Internet and are diminished, but do bring some deliberate part of ourselves along. We will only ever know hints and glimmers of ourselves and each other online. As for the rest:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” –Wittgenstein